Germany's Scientology phobia Religion: It began with fears that Scientologists were manipulating the real estate market in Hamburg.

Sun Journal

February 08, 1997|By Mary Williams Walsh and John-Thor Dahlburg | Mary Williams Walsh and John-Thor Dahlburg,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BERLIN -- On one thing, at least, the Church of Scientology and German authorities agree: The issue is tyranny.

They disagree, however, on just who the tyrant is. German officials say the church "aims at world domination and the destruction of our society," in the words of Family Affairs Minister Claudia Nolte.

The Church of Scientology, meanwhile, has been lobbing accusations of totalitarianism right back at Germany: It has been running big ads in prominent newspapers -- some with photos of Dachau inmates -- charging that Germany is treating Scientologists today the way the Nazis dealt with the Jews.

Even the U.S. State Department has ventured into the fray, citing Germany in its latest annual human rights report, issued last week, for putting the church "under increasing scrutiny," and giving examples of German actions against the organization.

What's going on here? How has modern, democratic Germany ended up in the same boat with the likes of Iran and China -- as a perceived redoubt of human rights abuse?

The answer has everything to do with Germany's terrible past and the powerful, well-intentioned public suspicion of fringe movements that past has given rise to.

In Germany, opposition to Scientology -- based on the writings of the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard -- goes well beyond the realm of courts, prosecutors and parliamentary panels.

Here, political leaders have declared Scientology to be "a cancer" on society and its members so dangerous that they must be "outed" and ostracized.

Although Scientologists in Germany number 30,000 at the most, in a population of more than 80 million, the public -- from kindergarten teachers to bankers to professional societies -- seems willing to comply.

Consider:

A number of German banks have established formal policies against opening accounts for Scientologists or making loans to their businesses.

The state of Bavaria requires all applicants for civil-service jobs to reveal whether they are Scientologists. Those who admit membership aren't hired.

Such respected newspapers as Munich's Sueddeutsche Zeitung will not accept advertisements from companies owned by Scientologists.

Various German private schools and day-care centers have refused to admit the children of Scientologists. In Bavaria, the public schools offer anti-Scientology instruction as part of their curriculum.

Such professional groups as the Society of German Real Estate Brokers and the German Management Consultants bar membership to all Scientologists.

The postal workers union for the Cologne district reserves the right not to deliver Scientologists' mail.

Germany's governing party, the Christian Democratic Union, refuses membership to Scientologists, arguing that their beliefs are incompatible with "Christian ethics." The CDU wants the church put under covert surveillance, a drastic step in Germany normally reserved for terrorists and neo-Nazis.

The CDU's youth wing has organized boycotts of recent films featuring Scientologist actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta -- actions that apparently did not affect ticket sales. Performances and exhibits by musicians and artists -- including, on occasion, jazz pianist Chick Corea -- have been canceled because the artists are Scientologists.

One woman more than anyone else in Germany is responsible for raising the alarm about Scientology: Ursula Caberta, head of a Scientology task force in Hamburg.

She considers it a point of honor that Scientologists have called her "the new Goebbels," referring to the Nazi propagandist.

Hamburg concluded that it needed a Scientology task force in 1991, not long after local tenancy rules were changed to allow the conversion of rental apartments to condominiums.

As the local condo-conversion business took off, Hamburg tenants began complaining that landlords were muscling them out of their apartments. And, as it happened, some of the sharpest complaints were lodged against a landlord who was also a Scientologist.

Before long, many tenants in Hamburg believed that Scientology itself was manipulating the local real estate market, exploiting tenants in accordance with church doctrine.

"You can read all this in Mr. Hubbard's writings," Caberta says. "If you gain influence in certain sectors of a country's economy, then you can achieve a certain power in that country."

It was against this backdrop that Caberta received her authority from the municipal parliament to study Scientology full-time.

Her first public report was issued in 1995. It played to the public's worst suspicions: Caberta alleged that the Hamburg branch of Scientology was making most of its money from real estate deals and that the church hierarchy was brainwashing members into thinking it was "ethical" to commit tax evasion, fraud and other crimes.

"They did really disgusting things" to get tenants out of buildings, Caberta charges. "They enlisted neighbors to spy on each other. Or they bribed people," who regretted it later, to relinquish their homes.

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